From crop predictions to grain silo technology: meet emerging European agritech start-ups
Agriculture – the world’s oldest industry – may not seem like the sexiest thing to disrupt.
But more and more startups are looking to serve the industry as it is battered by huge spikes in fertilizer and fuel prices. Agriculture – which accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions – is both a cause and a victim of global warming, putting additional pressure on farmers.
So which startups are helping farms keep sky-high costs under control?
Prevent fields from sowing
Oskar Marko is co-founder and CEO of Cropt, a Serbia-based company for three years that helps seed companies and banks predict future crop performance. He has developed machine learning algorithms that attempt to answer questions such as, “Should you plant that seed in that field?” and “Does this plant variety respond better to a certain type of soil?”
With growing seasons becoming more volatile due to drought and higher temperatures, he expects technologies like his to be in high demand.
Summer droughts forced the earliest harvest ever this year in French wine regions. In the UK cattle were fed winter hay stocks because the grass was dry and there was nothing to eat. In Switzerland, military helicopters have been dispatched to the mountain pastures, carrying water supplies to prevent agricultural herds from dying of thirst.
“Farmers are realizing they have to do something new [and] unless they change their methods, they will fail,” says Marko.
His solution: give the farmer the tools to operate as a hedge fund manager. Choosing the right seed variety is “literally like investing in the stock market,” he says. “Once we’ve modeled growth, we can see what’s going to happen in good and bad years. We can turn the farmer into a wolf of Wall Street, able to choose between low yielding and high yielding crops.
Marko says his technology can help boost seeding profits by a quarter.
Farmers already have to adapt to climate change. Maize is the most profitable crop you can grow in southeastern Europe, says Marko, “but lately it’s seen as more risky, so farmers are planting more and more sunflowers , because they are more resistant to drought”.
Help you make hay
Helping farmers take some of the unpredictability out of summer has become a key selling point for agritech startups. Another way they tempt buyers: to help reduce energy and fertilizer bills breathtakingly.
One such startup is Swiss agritech ecorobotix, which sells a big piece of technology that fits on the end of a tractor. Inside this square machine is software that chooses precise spray treatments based on the crop growing in the field. The company claims it could save a farmer around 90% on fertilizer, although this comes after the huge expense of ecorobotix technology.plus software license costs.
French agritech Javelot, meanwhile, makes a sensor kit that allows farmers to monitor their grain storage silos and adjust temperature knobs if it gets too hot there, saving money on expensive ventilation systems. “We help you spend less,” is the company’s direct pitch.
Another Swiss company, Vivent, has created a way to detect stress signals in plants before visible symptoms appear. The startup says its technology allows the plant to tell the grower if it is suffering from a pathogen outbreak, or if it needs more water, or if it could benefit from a certain nutrient.
“Digital penetration in European farms is 10%. [Microsoft] Excel remains one of our main competitors”
“The plants sit there, they have about 35 senses, they can hear and see, they can differentiate between many wavelengths. We wanted to tap into that sensory network and use it to drive innovation,” says company co-founder and CEO Carrol Plummer.
Once the plant is hooked up to the Vivent technology – which took 10 years to develop – it will send an alert message to a grower if they feel any signs of stress. This knowledge allows corrective action to be taken much earlier, says Plummer.
Vivent primarily targets indoor growers – think greenhouse managers in the Netherlands – and has around 80 customers, who each receive a weekly breakdown of key metrics for their crops.
A client quoted by Plummer says the technology has helped increase their yield growth by 4%. Sensors can also be useful in cutting some of the grease from massive electricity bills, if growers find they’re powering their crops with too much energy.
Startups Barnstorming – but who is buying?
Despite the promise of sensors and data analytics, robotics and drones, disrupting agriculture is not easy.
An obvious problem: farming is a high-risk, low-margin business. “Farmers are some of the most interested people in technology, but they’re also very hard to convince to adopt new things,” says Laetitia de Panafieu, investor at Brussels-based venture capital firm Astanor Ventures.
Technology adoption still has a long way to go on European farms compared to the United States, says Matteo Vanotti, CEO of Italian-Swiss startup xFarm Technologies. The company, which offers tools such as sensors and software in the field, raised €17 million from investors in August.
Speaking at the World Agritech Innovation Summit in London this week, he estimated that “digital penetration on European farms is 10%. [Microsoft] Excel remains one of our main competitors.
It’s not exactly technophobia that’s holding agritech back, but rather, with so many decisions to make every day, farmers want things that give them multiple answers. “They don’t like nonsense,” says Eric Adamson, CEO of Tortuga, an American company that has started selling robotic fruit pickers to European growers.
For the startup hoping to break into agriculture, finding those answers is usually a long game of trial and error.
Keeping algorithms fed with the best data, for example, is a mammoth task in the agricultural world. “If you work in the world of self-driving cars, you can take five cameras, strap them to the front of your car, drive for an hour, and you can collect terabytes. To get a row in a spreadsheet for our fields , you have to monitor crops over a year,” says Marko de Crot. “So it’s very difficult to get data – it’s also very expensive.”
Want more agritech? Don’t miss our latest deep-dive report on the subject, which we’ll post for Sifted Pro members on September 28.